The Place Where We Started

Notes on the sad state of audio remastering and how
cutting-edge technology is wasted by a greedy music industry
pursuing an increasingly less-sophisticated audience

And the end of all our exploring
will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time

–TS Eliot

Recently I added another three terabytes of media storage space and decided to re-rip some of my CDs to the Apple Lossless format. After all, I now had room for songs that each weigh-in, on average, at 32 MB. Apple Lossless is essentially a bit-for-bit duplication of digital music that’s compressed and converted back on-the-fly to its perfectly replicated state. Thus the whole “losseless” thing–the digitalized music literally is the copied CD.

This has forced me to determine the most pristine source for each re-ripped CD. Which really is a genuine challenge because I collect music–lots of music; more music than you can imagine, and more than I will ever publicly admit to. Normal people have some Bowie CDs–probably not all of them. I, on the other hand, have a three different remasterings of Bowie’s complete works. This is not bragging–it’s an admission of an obvious problem for which I should probably seek professional help. I mention it because it follows that if I have three complete sets of Bowie remasters, well, there must be multiple remasterings of, say, the complete Miles Davis–and, god help us, you’d be right. Thus finding the best source for my new Apple Lossless duplications is a very real problem for me.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking: Well, no biggie, fool–just use the most recent remasters. Advancing technology means increasingly better re-digitaliztions. To which I say in the most world-weary music collector’s tone possible, You’d think, wouldn’t you? But frequently–perhaps even more times than not–you’d be wrong about this.

Let’s digress for a few moments–because an analogy is badly needed. Think of remastering in terms of the restoration of a piece of art. Remember a few years ago, when they restored the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Pretend that Michelangelo’s ceiling is Bryan Ferry’s Mamouna (simply because it’s been the cause of my most recent struggle). Okay, so you’re the art historian-cum-restorer and you’re standing there in the Sistine Chapel, staring up at the ceiling. What’s the first thing you’re thinking–what’s the project’s prime directive so to speak? If you’re sane, it’s Christ on a cracker, this is a fucking Michelangelo, revered the world over–first and foremost I must Do No Effing Harm. To which I once again say in the most world-weary music collector’s tone possible, You’d think, wouldn’t you?

And “harm” for our art restorer, beyond the don’t-physically-damage-the-damn-thing-it’s-priceless, would be a failure to return the Sistine Chapel ceiling to its original state–to fail to honor as closely as possible the Big M’s intention. Easy-peasy, yes? You’d think, wouldn’t you? So it follows that you’d do research–you’d find the earliest possible photos, you’d find the most protected pieces of pigment to ascertain the true colors of the work, you’d consider its entire palette and how the values work in relation to one another. That sort of thing. More full-bore easy-peasy, albeit labor intensive. You’d think.

Now imagine if, when reopened, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling colors were Op-Art bright–yellows were school-bus hued; blues were all deeply IKB; flesh tones were more akin to those in HD porn. Imagine, too, that the ceiling’s dimensions had been made smaller, and that the background had nearly been eliminated in favor of the foreground. And finally, that God’s hand gesturing to Adam has been repositioned, even though only slightly. So what do we now think of the art restorer? Yeah–me too. I’ll just pop out to get torches and pitchforks for everybody . . .

Let’s review: restorations–physically, visually or sonically–should allow the audience in question to experience as closely as possible the artist’s original intent. We have a goal, we have a path and we have a yardstick by which to measure success. So what the fuck is going on with most audio remastering? This should be easy-peasy, right? You’d think, wouldn’t you?

My recent adventures in ripping cherished CDs to Apple Lossless have underscored something horrifying–for all of the reasons outlined above, close to 80 percent of my remasters are simply not as good as the original releases they replaced and put out-of-print. Far, far from it. In these cases, a Sistine Chapel ceiling went into the remastering studio and a version painted on black velvet came out. Easy-peasy my ass.

On the way to ripping Bryan Ferry’s 1994 Mamouna, I did A/B comparisons of four CD versions to the original UK vinyl pressing of the recording. And because I sense that the suspense is killing you, I’ll cut to the chase: the US Virgin 1994 CD of Mamouna–its first appearance on compact disc–blows away the touted-at-the-time 1999 remastering in all possible ways. The 1999 remaster narrowed the sound stage, eliminated space between instruments and lost an integrated sound in favor of individual instruments which were all made to take what can only be described as the in-place equivalent of solos. We’re talking an aural aggressiveness that borders on harshness. And so 19 years on, down a road that passes by massive technological advances in sound processing and digitalization, I’ve chosen the first CD appearance of Mamouna to preserve with a lossless technology that didn’t exist when it was released. This is so not easy-peasy; this is unacceptable. We have the capability of exactly capturing Bryan Ferry’s intention two decades ago, and we choose not to do so–to instead rethink the release in a way that, one can only assume, makes financial sense 19 years on.

By “financial sense,” I’m not referring to the cost of the remastering itself. Because in this case the tapes were in good shape and, given the history of sound recording, 1994 wasn’t that long ago. You want cheap? Here’s contextual cheap: Find the master tape that’s upstream of the version EQ’d for vinyl. Play it back on the same deck that recorded it (or one like it) connected by a single cable unmediated by any sound processing devices to the best digital recorder you have. Sample the master at 192kHz/24-bit. Done: a near-perfect sonic snapshot of what Ferry left on the original mastering recorder when he exited the studio well-pleased two decades ago. How hard can this be? All things considered, it’s easy-peasy. At least you’d think, wouldn’t you?

So no, the “financial sense” I’m referring to is the only metric the music industry pays attention to–the number of units moved, or–in this case–the number of units resold to those who already have a copy of Mamouna and, hopefully, to new, younger potential fans. For those already owning Mamouna, the remaster has to sound “new;” for younger, potential fans, Mamouna has to sound of-the-moment rather than 19 years old. And the single answer to both these needs is to change the recording by way of deforming it in the remastering. This is definitely not about Artistic Intent. Rather, it’s about differentiating as if it were Coke New Mamouna from Old Mamouna for one market and making it of a piece with the compressed, shrill and MP3-based music that’s the sonic reality of younger audiences. The music labels change releases when remastering them because it makes marketing (and therefore financial) sense for them to do so.

Purists will insist that however onerous, this technically remains a remaster rather than a remix–but I don’t. Because when a previously subtle bass leaps to the front and comes thundering out of the speakers, when the sound stage narrows, sifting instruments to the center in a kind of stereo-mono and when integrated instrumental interplay is shattered by hyper-detail in the manner of an overcooked HDR photo, it is a remix in all ways but the name. Who you gonna trust, the purists say–us or your lying ears? Me, I’m going with the thing that walks and talks like a duck.

I’m genuinely outraged by all of this. We’ve reached a point where we can almost be plunked down in the studio next to Bowie as he records Station To Station or with McCartney as he listens to the final mix of Ram or by Harrison’s side at the playback of All Things Must Past. Instead, we got terrible remasters of all these recordings–garish parodies of themselves–like film stars with too much Botox . . . It nearly makes my music-loving head explode.

But having said this and understanding that my ranting is ultimately useless, I still cling to the dream that someday the best music in my collection will be direct, flat transfers from the original master tapes. And if I can further hear the splices between songs, I’ll be even happier. Given today’s technology, this should be easy-peasy. You’d think, wouldn’t you?

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